Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

TBASS

Title: The Best Asian Short Stories 2018
Editor: Debotri Dhar
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Kitaab
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The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 is a collection of nineteen short stories, that saunter through the wonderland of Asia to dwell on vignettes of life in the vast continent. Edited by Dr Debotri Dhar and series editor Zafar Anjum, the second volume of the series has a mix of stories by eminent and upcoming writers.

Our emotions are played on from all angles as each story flavours our palate with different moods. We pause to smile over an unusual light-hearted Goan romance among the elderly in Geralyn Pinto’s “Cakes” and cringe with horror at the impact of acid attacks on women, a reality in Bangladesh and Pakistan as portrayed by Reba Khatun. Dr Rakshanda Jalil’s story with the tale of Zuliekha’s transformation from a shy Muslim girl to a glamorous club diva brings to mind Eliza Doolittle, heroine of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, except this story has a twist which colours it with class stratification that are essentially Indian.

“Festival”, a translated story from Japan, gives us a glimpse of the intermingling of old and new in a country that retains its traditions despite its modernity. William Tham Wai Liang’s nostalgic “At the Moonlit River’s Edge” brings us close to the theme that has been explored in The State of Emergency, the 2018 Singapore Literature prize-winning novel – the communist insurgency in 1950s Malaya. Strangely, Martin Bradley’s “Bougainvillea”, set in modern day Malaysia also hovers around the same theme as the protagonist journeys to Ipoh in search of his father’s grave, his father having lost his life in 1951 during an encounter with communist insurgents. However, this is a story that transcends the angst of history to bring in themes of friendship and wonder generated by the multicultural flavour of life in this region. We have another lovely story of ASEAN friendship in the Singaporean Thai romance named after the delicious Thai dessert, “Mango and Sticky Rice”.

The unusual and paranormal have been explored by a couple of writers. “The Rescuer” is a supernatural adventure set in a Japanese railway station, a strange tale that leaves the reader stupefied! “The Grey Thread” by young Vanessa Ng is another one that explores an unusual, bizarre journey into a world of paint and paper.

Some of the stories fiddle with recent natural disasters and contemporary issues. The impact of the historic cloudburst in the Himalayas in 2013 and the arbitrariness of all existence is explored in “The Cosmic Dance”. “Begin Again”, set in Phillipines, explores teen adjustment issues. “For Chikki’s Sake” not only comments on marital issues, parenting but also on caste based marriage, which still exists in parts of India. The dichotomy that exists in women’s world between feminism and reality in India is well captured in “Don’t Even Ask! Poochho Mat!” “The Amulet” explores the disappointment of a diva; “The Bureaucrats’s Wife” reflects the breakdown of values in a rich man’s home; “Lola’s Honeymoon” is a strange tale which gives a glimpse of moneyed life as does “The Cycle”, though this story does ascend social boundaries drawn by economic barriers and the futility of addiction to drugs and violence.

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Reviewed by Shikhandin

Clone

Title: Clone
Author: Priya Sarukkai Chabria
Publisher – Zubaan Books
Pages: Hard cover 285
Price: INR Rs 595 / $25 / £19

In 1897, the French artist Paul Gaugin, who had relocated to Tahiti some years earlier, painted his masterpiece – a wall sized fresco-like oil painting, in which flowed the summation of his ideas through the medium of sensuous Tahitian figures against lush Tahitian backdrop and motifs. He titled it in French, the English translation of which reads: ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ These are existential questions, asked by humans down the centuries. Poets have asked through poetry, story tellers or minstrels have sung of those who cried out to the wheeling universe. Philosophers have pondered and mathematicians have tried to solve them through equations. Priya Sarukkai Chabria, in her richly textured novel, has written about one who seeks answers to similar questions. Her quester though, is a clone.

The subject of clones with heightened sensitivity has been treated in literature before, and also rendered into cinema.  Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, made into a movie of the same name later, is one of the most thought provoking and based on Earth. An earlier novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick in the late 1960s, renamed Blade Runner, was made into a movie by Ridley Scott in 1982. Other novels and movies too have dealt with clones, mostly in far off space colonies and space ships.

Sarukkai Chabria’s novel evokes luscious images, even as the narrative throws up unsettling theories of the future of humans. She comes across as a demanding writer, one who expects her readers to be informed and attentive. Her prose urges closer scrutiny, heavily embossed as it is with imageries culled from myths, legends and history. The reader has to know the sources, or at least be curious enough to find out, or else be left bereft of the contexts of her narrative. The extensive use of esotericism in her novel is both its strength and a weakness – the former as it adds layers and dimensions to the story; the latter, because the profusion of references and allusions, imageries and motifs, draws the reader in too deep into specific portions, slowing down the pace, and yet one must read on for the tale hasn’t ended, making the book exhausting at times. It is a relief therefore to know that the plot of Clone is fairly straightforward.

Reviewed by Gouri Athale

Title: Divided by Partition United by Resilience
Editor: Mallika Ahluwalia
Publisher: Rupa Publications India (2018)
Pages: 210 (Paperback)

The title says it all, these are the first person accounts of people who suffered the partitioning of their provinces (now called states) and of some, like those from Sindh and Northwest Frontier Province, who lost even that province/state.

An important and positive contribution of this book is that it reminds us that our history does not end with gaining independence; that history continues to be made even after 1947. The anthology has stories mainly on the fallout of partition of the Punjab, a few from Sind and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and just one story from Bengal. Yet, this is the most touching, heart wrenching, made worse because it is so rarely heard. There ought to have been more, since Bengal was first partitioned in 1905 and then again in 1947.

For most Indians born after 1991, partition is believed to have affected only the Punjab, because that is a well-documented story and it happened in one stroke, around August 1947. Bengal, on the other hand, had as great a trauma in 1947 but refugees came in waves, going on well up to 1971, which leaves Sindh, or Sind, where there was no partition. The entire state was given away so that those who came as refugees from Sindh lost not only their property, their culture but also their entire state, making them state-less. Bengal and Punjab got some part of their old states so they didn’t lose their identity totally in the form of a home state.

This collection of short stories, told most of the time in the first person, gives the impression that partition happened across many more than the two states; it makes no differentiation between Sindh and the NWFP (which weren’t partitioned) and Punjab and Bengal, which were.

Reviewed by Nandini Varma

Green is the Colour of Memory

Title: Green is the Colour of Memory
Author: Huzaifa Pandit
Publisher: Hawakal Publishers (2018)
Pages: 64 (Paperback)

In a class on Mahmoud Darwish, we are reading aloud “Promises of a Storm” – a moment where the poet’s eyes search for flowers blooming beneath the ashes – ‘I will go on serenading happiness/ somewhere beyond the eyelids of frightened eyes.’

After class, I reach out for a borrowed copy of Huzaifa Pandit’s book of poems, looking for poetry as real as Darwish’s, and read the first poem, “A Kashmiri Fairytale”, pulled out as though from the same song of longing for happiness that Darwish sees in the future.

‘Green green grass will dance in the drowsy sun/ of warm, warm May/ we will quarrel and quibble night and day…’ writes Huzaifa in the poem which opens his debut collection, Green is the Colour of Memory. Consisting of 36 poems, this book stands out not just in the truth it aims to convey but in how it brings it to us through narratives that we don’t quite get to hear or read microscopically in newspapers or news channels that have promised a responsibility of recording history and have failed repeatedly. Little pieces of history are recorded in Huzaifa’s poems.

Huzaifa Pandit comes from Kashmir and writes poetry that deals with the everyday realities of those living in Kashmir, as well as what it is like to carry that identity into spaces like local train journeys, to having brief encounters with people outside Kashmir, to academic spaces, and it is themes such as these that appear most prominently in this collection as well.

Camus had once written, ‘Art cannot be a monologue,’ asserting that an artist cannot create in isolation and must speak of the ‘reality common to us all.’ Huzaifa’s work emerges as an excellent example then of this art, in the form of poetry that creates a tiny corner and opens its arms wide for a dialogue to begin; not only does he offer us a counter-narrative, he also engages with the reader through the sharpness of his language—sometimes you hear it from close quarters and sometimes it is a distant whisper making space for you to step in. Reciprocating then, it is in reading his poems slowly, that we’re in sync with their breathing, and it is in their breathing that we find our own lives momentarily paused. Yet there is transcendence, yet we are being transformed.

When the book opens, we find the poet addressing a denied harmony — a quarrel which is softened by love, a moment so far away, one may only see it in a fairytale. What does one do then? What does one do? It is perhaps in search of an answer to this question, that the poet begins many poems in the collection with dreams and returns to nightmarish encounters, or eventualities.

Reviewed by Mir Arif

A Feminist Foremother

Title: A Feminist Foremother: Critical Essays on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
Edited by: Mohammad A. Quayum and Md. Mahmudul Hasan
Publisher: Orient BlackSwan Pvt Ltd.
Pages: 312 (Hardcover)
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In an essay entitled “Griha” [Home] Rokeya Skhawat Hossain (1880-1932) says that Indian women are treated worse than animals since even animals have homes, but Indian women have none: they must always be dependent on a man for shelter. It was in such an unfavourable time that Rokeya emerged as a crusader for the emancipation of Indian women and dedicated her life to building a gender-just society. A Feminist Foremother: Critical Essays on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (Orient Blackswan, 2017), takes a critical look into Rokeya’s struggle and becoming one of India’s most ‘courageous feminists’. Seen within the socio-cultural and historical context of her times, the book also examines her literary works and social reform activities to better appreciate the challenges she faced as a Bengali Muslim woman.

The book contains 13 essays by reputed academics and critics. It is co-edited by Mohammad A. Quayum, Professor of English at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), and Adjunct Professor of English and Creative Writing at Flinders University, Australia; and Md. Mahmudul Hasan, Associate Professor of English at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). They both have decades-long research on early feminist movement in the Indian subcontinent, especially in undivided Bengal. Professor Quayum has previously edited and translated The Essential Rokeya: Selected Works of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain 1880-1932 (Brill, 2013). Dr. Hasan has a Ph.D in comparative study of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Attia Hosain and Monica Ali.

The first essay, “Rokeya Skhawat Hossain: A Biographical Essay,” by Mohammad A. Quayum provides a comprehensive discussion on Rokeya’s life and works. Professor Quayum highlights how Rokeya—overcoming all kinds of hurdles coming both from her family and society—continued to learn Bengali and English from her elder sister Karimunnesa and elder brother Ibrahim Saber, who contributed immensely to her early literary growth. Her father Abu Ali Saber—whose ancestors migrated to India from Tabriz, Iran in the sixteenth century and settled in Pairaband in 1583—did not want her to learn Bengali or English. For one thing, the Ashraf migrant community and its members, such as Rokeya’s father, looked down upon Bengali as it was spoken by ‘low-born Ajlaf Muslims’. It also deemed Arab and Persian traditions to be ‘authentic Islamic culture’ and detested English as it was the language of a new colonial power. The essay critically evaluates Rokeya’s literary endeavour and social reform initiatives and argues that ‘both her school and her literary works have survived the test of time; both serve as enduring testimonies to Rokeya’s genius and vision as a writer, educationist and social activist.’

Reviewed by Devika Basu

The Best Indian Poetry

Title: Best Indian Poetry 2018
Editor: Linda Ashok

Publisher: RLFPA Editions
Page: 180 (Paperback)
Price: INR 475 | USD 15

‘This entire pursuit is only a goodwill initiative for the poets of my country and Diaspora—an organized activity that keeps me in the know of poetry as it evolves in its private space,’ says Linda Ashok in the introduction to the Best Indian Poetry (BIP) 2018. As the series editor, she has worked through a wide arena of our culture, linguistic subtleties and poetic forms, and what she has brought out is a rare gem, with beads of pearls interwoven in poetic texture.

The hiatus between English poetry and poetry from India, or more distinctly, between foreign writers writing in English and Indian writers trying the same, has been a debatable topic and will remain unfathomable for years to come. This anthology is an earnest endeavour to bridge the gap and ‘bring the tectonic plates of the west and the east closer than ever… heralding a borderless celebration of poetry across colours, languages and cultural quirks.’

‘Painting is silent poetry, poetry is eloquent painting.’ Tagore’s words sound prophetic as poets try to create an alternative reality with subtle strokes and try to incorporate it in a culture-specific poetic spectrum.

The Best Indian Poetry has tried to bring together myriad shades of life within a single canvas, cutting across diverse cultural ethos. The poets hail from different socio-linguistic backgrounds and their poems certainly add a different flavour to this collection. ‘You cannot tie me/to any one religion, to any one relationship,/ to any one post, don’t put a noose around my neck.’ And ‘accept me the way I am. I am not a goat,/ you will not be able to tie me to a post…’ These self-revelatory lines from Abha Iyenger’s poem “You Cannot Tie Me” (p 20) unobtrusively pinpoint the defiance of a woman in a male-dominated, patriarchal society where women are enslaved, tied to societal norms, meant only to subdue, in the name of religion or age-old customs, and treat them as a sacrificial beast to appease men. Her pen has virtually challenged this myopic vision. Her poems appeal to our intellect and build up an alternative reality in terms of poetic texture. As Mary Wollstonecraft says, ‘I love my man as my fellow, but his scepter, real or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage, and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.’

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Losing Kei

Title: Losing Kei
Author: Suzanne Kamata
Publisher: Leapfrog Press
Pages: 195

 

Losing Kei, a novel by Suzanne Kamata, an American expatriate living in Japan, highlights the story of a mother who abandons her child, torn by the clash of cultures.  Kei is the child from a marriage sundered by the incompatibility of the parents. The American mother leaves the Japanese father and their six-year-old son. Set in Japan, the focus of the story is on the mother’s struggle and inability to adjust to her marriage with a Japanese man in his own country.

Jill Parker, the mother and the protagonist, states at the very beginning of the story, ‘I came to Japan because a man had broken my heart.’ The author uses the perspective of the protagonist to narrate the story in first person. Jill takes an art scholarship to Japan to get over her boyfriend, Philip. When she meets her well-to-do Japanese spouse, Yusuke, a businessman who owns an art gallery, she is down and out. She has no money to pay her rent and works in a bar in Tokushima City to support herself. Yusuke is the solution to her monetary hardships and heartbreak. Jill marries Yusuke, telling him that she is exploring the world like Blondelle Malone, a nineteenth- early twentieth century impressionist artist who never married. However, unlike Malone, Jill is willing to marry. Jill doesn’t speak of her earlier heartbreak to Yusuke. As she struggles to conform to her Japanese marriage, she grows increasingly resentful of parental interference. The last straw for her is when Yusuke’s father dies and her husband declares that they would have to continue looking after his mother and live in the same house. For Jill, Yusuke’s grief at his father’s death is unattractive as is his clean-shaven face, which makes him seem ‘like a stranger’.

As she leaves him and her young child, one is left gaping at the heartlessness and self-centeredness of an irresponsible mother who is unable to put a child’s needs above her own.

By Jonaki Ray

At the core of Rohan Chhetri’s poems are memories: his own and of moments—based in history or moments turning into history rooted within the intricacies and details of mundane daily lives–that transform into memories.

Reading these poems also strike a chord about the universality of death intertwined with the ways one tries to come to terms with it; of love that, even in its transience, creates something permanent, and of the impermanence of all the things that one wants to be permanent: family, home, country, and finally life.

“Every Thing for Me Is Something Else”, for instance, starts with the wind howling through the night, the tap-tap of it like ‘dragging its dirty fingernails’. The autumn light is gradually fading, ‘shortening like a deer’s eye dimming inside the red cave of a python’s belly…’. The light catches the ordinary scene of an urban landscape, ‘The night windows in city apartments overlooking the flyovers and that one silhouette, backlit by a mustard glow.’ Through the rest of the poem, the typical scenes of a day in a city—a couple arguing, a girl begging at the street-light corners through the rain—are described in a dazzling combinations of words, ‘Rainwater awning over her eyelashes, her hair plastered on her skull, & lips trying to spell something inconsolable’. The poem ends with a sudden, almost violent flashback to a scene from the poet’s childhood:

My mother rushing in through the smoke and the cindering floorboards.
Her screaming as she opens the window
& the cold wind howling in the voice of her firstborn, my stillborn brother.

Reviewed by Saba Mahmood Bashir

patna blues

Title: Patna Blues
Author: Abdullah Khan
Publishing House: Juggernaut Books
Year of publication: 2018
Price: Rs 499

 

Yeh maikad-e-ishq hai yahan  jaam-e-junoon milta hain
Giriya-e-deed-e-Qaisha wa Qalb-e-Laila ka khoon milta hai

To say that Patna Blues, the debut novel of Abdullah Khan, is about the life of a young boy, an IAS aspirant from Patna, is limiting the scope of the book and the author. Strongly set in the history and politics of the nation of the last 30 years or so, the story is woven on the desire of a middle class, hardworking family to see their son as an administrative officer. What gets sewn in the storyline is the infatuation of Arif Khan, the protagonist, with a Hindu married woman, Sumitra, who is much older to him. However, in actuality what lies within the fabric of the story is the socio-political situation of the country in the background and which keeps jutting out throughout the main narrative. Right from the building up of the political mood of the nation before the demolition of the Babri Masjid to the Gujarat carnage and the then Chief Minister being denied the US visa, the story continues along the arc of political changes that happen in the country. One notices the changes in the storyline with the rise of extremism and its impact on the common man. There are references of how his honest father, a respectable police inspector, had to pay the price for his honesty, and how the corrupt officials tried to settle scores with him after he retired. This issue of corruption has been dealt with rather sensitively, portraying at length the helplessness of an honest officer. Again, when Arif’s younger brother, an aspiring actor, goes missing from a Muslim dominated locality in Delhi, there are suggestions of corruption and an existing fear of the police.

Reviewed by Shikhandin

Ultimate Grandmother Hacks.jpg

Title: Ultimate Grandmother Hacks – 50 kickass traditional habits for a fitter you
Author: Kavita Devgan
Publisher: Rupa Publications
Pages: Paperback, 218
Price: INR 295/-

 

The title of the book will grab any millennial’s attention. The book cover is elegant and clutter free, in spite of packing in a title that runs into a sentence, the author’s name, the visual element and an endorsement by Kiran Mazumdar Shaw.  The back cover is strengthened by two more celebrity endorsements, apart from a pithy blurb set to hook the reader. I am certain this book is doing well. Especially since it embraces a subject that will always remain ever green – fitness through food.

“Ultimate Grandmother Hacks” is written in a conversational style, like most books of its ilk, dishing out tips and recipes and so forth, in what the author and her editors assumedly believe is accessible, readable. I guess it really is a matter of individual taste. Accessibility can become frivolous, and at times talk down to the readers. It was probably this aspect that made it a little difficult for me to take this ride with Devgan. Every now and then, I felt like a tourist being led by a guide who has nothing new to say, but gushes about it, nevertheless.

Now all mothers are amazing. But mine is not just amazing, she is somehow supremely attuned to all things healthy too. Case in point: one of her recent concoctions is grated beetroot and carrot atta (dough), seasoned with salt and ajwain (carom seeds). Imagine beetroot parantha (bread). Unusual, agreed. But what a fantastic, even if somewhat twisted way to sneak in healthy eating.” This piece, in the prologue, breezily proclaiming a standard homemaker’s tactic to make regular paratha to be her mother’s invention, was off putting; and then, going on to explain Indian words to an Indian audience, pretty much throughout the book. If one must make allowances for foreign readers, then, please just add it to the glossary at the end. Readers are not fools, nor are they all that ignorant. Though going by the tone of the whole book, Kavita Devgan obviously believes so. And, then it hit me.

Who is this book really for?